What to Do When Grandma’s on the Roof

An old joke:

A man left his cat with his brother while he went on vacation for a week. When he came back, he called his brother to see when he could pick the cat up. The brother hesitated, then said, “I’m so sorry, but while you were away, the cat died.”

The man was very upset and yelled, “You know, you could have broken the news to me better than that. When I called today, you could have said he was on the roof and wouldn’t come down. Then when I called the next day, you could have said that he had fallen off and the vet was working on patching him up. Then when I called the third day, you could have said he had passed away.”

The brother thought about it and apologized.

“So how’s Mom?” asked the man.

“She’s on the roof and won’t come down.”

That’s the joke.There’s a pretty good lesson waiting to be dragged out of this old and moldy bit, and a caveat. The caveat can wait for another day, but here’s the lesson:

Bad news takes special handling

That’s it. And the special handling is this: Get It Out There. The man wasn’t asking not to be told the bad news; he just wanted to ease into it. Have some time to get used to the idea, do a little advanced planning for life without kitty; maybe even call a few shelters to line up a replacement.

The people for whom we in IT do things are like that guy. They don’t like bad news – who does? But sometimes bad things happen when we’re doing things for them – project schedules go awry, costs come in higher than expected, resources get redirected. Things happen. Our non-IT friends, who are counting on us to deliver useful things, are understandably unhappy when we have to tell them we can’t deliver what we promised, in the way we promised, when we promised it. The natural inclination on our part, nice people that we are, is to spare them their unhappiness by delaying the Bad News as long as possible. After all, maybe something good will happen that’ll make it all come out right – maybe a Miracle Will Occur, and the Bad Thing will be avoided. So we put off delivering the disappointing news as late as possible.

We shouldn’t do this. The one thing that’s worse than getting bad news is getting bad news at the last minute. That puts our non-IT friends in the same position as the guy who (used to) own the cat – no time to respond, no time to plan, and a dead cat on their hands, metaphorically speaking.

The important thing in doing IT for people is to make sure Bad Things don’t happen – that’s Risk Management. And putting plans in place to manage the fallout and, maybe recover the schedule when Bad Things happen anyway – that’s Contingency Planning. And Communicating effectively when we become aware that Bad Things have happened, or are likely to – that’s Good Manners.

It’s a really good thing, when we have to deliver the badness, to give some context: an explanation of what happened, with minimal IT jargon; an assessment of the likelihood of things getting worse, better, or staying the same, all things considered; a rundown of what we’re doing to fix things (and to make sure it doesn’t happen again); and, wrapping it up, the Bottom Line – what our end-user / customer / colleague can expect to happen, and when, and an idea of who’s going to make it happen.

They won’t like getting the bad news, and they’ll be vexed, if they’re human, that they’re not getting what they want, when they want it. But they’ll have at least a fighting chance of recovering if we give them all the information they need as soon as we’re sure of it, while the cat’s still up on the roof.

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